Thursday, May 08, 2008

Still Closed, But Appalshop Info

Back when I was writing about Appalshop as a model of community dialogue, there were some questions about the funding model, and suggestions that Appalshop was largely government funded. Here is a clarification from a member of Appalshop:

As an artist at Appalshop I just want to be clear that most of our funding does not come from the NEA. There might have been a time when federal sources had that sort of impact, but it has not been true for many, many years.

Appalshop's endowment comes from thousand of small donations from folks across the country, with some anchor support from foundations for various campaigns. The earnings from the endowment equal around six percent of the annual 2.0 mil. operating budget and mostly act as seed money for artistic projects from all divisions (theater, film, radio, and education) to get kick started. Our funding comes from an innovative web of private, government, earned income, contract, donor, and other forms of sales. Many times it comes from developing partnerships with other non-profits or agencies addressing pressing socials issues—who don’t have a mission of supporting arts, but see how our work can be strategic to their social, economic, cultural, or political goals. We also do yard sales!

I would say our best resource is the social capital of the folks who work here and are invested in making art happen here and beyond.

-nick szuberla

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Dear Readers,

I am a believer in the Biblical injunction "to whom much is given, much is expected." I heard this value spoken again by Michele Obama last Friday when I attended an Obama rally on campus. There was such a sense of one's responsibility to one's community, and one's responsibility to use your talents to better the place where you came from, or the place you have adopted as your own. That's what I think an artist should do.

Last night, I finished my semester-long course on the Hero's Journey in Film and Literature that I teach at prisons located around Asheville. I was very touched when the inmates used their own money to make me a birthday "prison cake" -- an incredible concoction made by squashing together a Little Debbie Honey Bun, a Snickers Bar, several packets of crushed Oreo cookies, and maybe something else I wasn't aware of. It was the best birthday cake I've ever had, because it really required a sacrifice from the inmates, who had to buy the ingredients from their tiny pay.

Anyway, the last part of that hero's journey follows the ordeal, a final challenge that the hero usually has to face alone and that tests everything he has learned along the way. Once the ordeal has been experienced, the hero returns to his community bearing the treasure, which is often the treasure of newfound wisdom. The hero then heals his community using that new wisdom. That's what I think an artist should do as well, and it is what I hope that the inmates will do. We have tried, over the semester, to explore how their experiences in prison could benefit their community -- what new strength they've developed, new values they've adopted, new confidence they've grown. Many of them will be going home soon, and will face all the roadblocks that we as a society put in front of people who have paid their debt to society -- roadblocks that make the pursuit in Les Miserables look like hide-and-seek. They will need their newfound wisdom in order to stay strong.

I have been writing this blog for two-and-a-half years now, and during that time I have tried to contribute to my adopted community, the theatre community. I have tried to figure out a way for theatre to be more geographically diverse, more central to our country's art scene, more sustainable, more responsive and responsible to society. During those years, I have spent a large part of my time arguing with bloggers from New York and Chicago. When I check my statistics, I see that, indeed, many of my readers are from New York and Chicago, but there are also readers from around the country and around the world -- readers that I rarely hear from. Perhaps they are reluctant to join a conversation that seems so contentious, so polarized. And as much as I wish they would chime in and bring their different perspective to the conversation, I can understand their reluctance.

I have used this blog, especially during the past five months, to develop my ideas about theatre tribes. I have floated the first drafts of ideas to see what needed to be clarified, fine-tuned, or scrapped entirely. It is now time to truly focus on the development of those ideas. It does not serve my purpose to continue scrapping with the usual bloggers about whether the theatre tribe idea will work -- I know it will work; or whether it is worthwhile -- I know it is worthwhile. I am wasting my time, and I don't have any to waste.

Despite being filled with progressive minds, theatre is currently a conservative art form -- conservative in the traditional sense of clinging to the past and resisting the siren call of the new. We currently have centralized theatrical power in a few places, and we know from other situations that those with power rarely give it up freely. While I have nothing against New York or Chicago, I believe the future of the theatre lies in geographical diversity, sustainable values, and a local focus, and the need to constantly address those two cities on this blog is wresting my focus from where it ought to be.

The discussion will continue, however, just not here. There are currently 64 people who have joined my Theatre Tribe website at Ning, and I have been neglecting them all while I scrap with others. It is time to focus on those who are interested in exploring these ideas, rather than those who are focused on knocking them down in the interest of "strengthening" them. If you are interested in joining this community, click on the badge in the right column that says "Join Theatre Tribe."

Visit Theatre Tribe

I have enjoyed this conversation, but we all know that I have started to repeat myself, and have the same argument with the same people over and over. Even I am bored with it by now.

It is my hope that the theatrosphere will move beyond its current obsession with self-promotion and become a place that can contribute to the exchange of serious ideas in the theatre world, so some serious self-reflection rather than pointing fingers at the public. No, my departure isn't due to Don Hall and Bob Fisher (dv), but rather over the past few weeks the conversations with them have revealed to me that I have gone as far as I can in this forum. I've passed "leave them wanting more," and now I have reached a point where Nick sighs in my comments box.

I leave the door open a crack for a future return, should I feel the need. But right now, I am headed for Ning, and for the quiet of my study as I try to complete this book on the theatre tribe idea.

Good things are happening. I have been in conversation with Mark Valdez of the Network of Ensemble Theatres, and with Bill O'Brien of the National Endowment of the Arts. I have been invited by Mike Daisey to participate in the Sunday discussions following How Theatre Failed America (I don't know whether that will work out or not).

Things are changing in the American theatre, and that is exciting. I'll be helping them along off to the side. If you need to contact me, I am at walt828 at gmail dot com.

Good luck, and keep talking!

Scott Walters

Don Hall Crosses the Line

In a post entitled "Playing to Tourists," in which Don Hall notes that 65% of the tickets bought on Broadway were sold to tourists and 84% were purchased by "non-city residents" (by which I assume is meant people who live outside the city of New York proper, i.e., suburbia), Don provides this description:
I've seen the tourists in Chicago. I've witnessed first hand the teeming, mouthbreathing masses of Americana parading themselves in their overfed, consumer-driven glory with their overweight children and spray-tanned wives. I've watched them smash themselves into the LaSalle Bank Theater to sing along with Jersey Boys and revel in the experience of taking a fifteen-minute Duck Boat Ride off of Navy Pier.
And while Don admits that he himself has been a tourist in the past so "I'm not immune from my scathing view of the consumer of commercially popular fare with jacked up prices for the out-of-town rubes," clearly he doesn't include himself among the "teeming, mouthbreathing masses parading themselves in their overfed, consumer-driven glory with their overweight children and spray-tanned wives." Nope, while Don is a "summer blockbuster junkie," there is no doubt he remains his cool, hip, intellectually independent, non-consumerist, metropolitan self.

If it wasn't clear before, it should be clear now that Don's biggest objection to a commitment to non-Nylachi theatre is that he feels himself superior to anyone who doesn't live in Nylachi, and feels that they are intellectually incapable of an appreciation of what he might offer because they are all mouth-breathers. After all, what is a tourist except somebody from somewhere else? When he was called out for this attitude by Laura Sue in the comments for my post "On Small Town Audiences (A Reply to Don Hall)," (Laura Sue: "Don states what we local yokels have known for years: the theater community thinks we're stupid and don't have any taste. Gee whiz. I wonder why we don't go to the theater more?"), he denied it existed: "In no way have I indicated in anything that I wrote that I think folks in non-Nylachi areas are 'unsophisticated' or 'stupid' or 'don't have any taste.'" But this latest post certainly gives the lie to that denial, unless "mouthbreating" has become a term of affection without my knowledge. So that's Don's orientation, and it is clear enough for me to no longer be concerned with trying to address his objections to my attempts to create a non-Nylachi theatre. His objections are based in a deep prejudice that is classist, regionalist, and offensive.

In fact, he sinks even lower:
The real question is "Do we really want to spend time and energy trying to court these people to come see our shows?" Sure, we want the money and we want the audience, but in the end it is worth the energy and time spent sticking our sexiest pose out in the street and squeaking out "C'mon, Iowa. Me SO horny. Me love you LONG time..."?
"These people." And then using a racist stereotype to boot. Way over the line. While I would agree with Don that wooing tourists is a waste of time, it isn't because they are unworthy of being courted, but rather that as focus should be on your community rather than visitors.

But what I want to know is where is the outrage of the theatrosphere? Where is Nick with his objections to the creation of an "us/them" argument? Isn't "non-tourist/tourist" and us/them argument? Where are those sensitive Nylachi bloggers whose feelings get hurt if I say anything even slightly less than adulatory about Nylachi? Do you think that non-Nylachians, here known as "tourists," should quietly accept being insulted by a Chicago theatre blogger while you demand an apology for the slightest tweek? That the Chicago bloggers find nothing the least bit objectionable in Don's slurs are clear in the comments. Paul Rekk jokes along with Don: "Don! You say that to all the Iowa girls? I thought we had something special!" Har har. And Rob Kozlowski has nothing to say about these offensive images at all, but is content simply to correct Don's facts about where The Jersey Boys is playing: "Actually, Don, that's now the Bank of America Theater! Whatta country!"

Oh, right. That's just Don. He's says all kinds of offensive stuff. Har har. But he's a good guy. No, really. Sort of like Don Imus -- he just gets carried away sometimes.


As long as theatre artists maintain a disdain for normal human beings, theatre will remain an irrelevant, unsupported coterie art form that is unable to "hold the mirror up to nature," but instead will "hold the mirror up to the mirror" and thus reflect infinite emptiness.

Monday, May 05, 2008

No Adults

I have been enjoying reading Ken Davenport's "Producer's Perspective" blog for about a month now. I like his unique perspective. But if I needed proof that Ken and I don't quite see things the same, his recent post "Why Did I Decide to Be a Producer of This Broadway Show?" pretty much did it:

What do we look for when putting our record and reputation on the line? A good score? A reasonable economic model? Passionate creative team? Producing partners you admire? A show you can say you're proud to be a part of even if He doesn't like it?


But that's not all.

For me, there has to be all of those things . . . and something else. Something unique, something remarkable, something purple. Something that can cut through the noise of the other 30+ Broadway shows screaming for attention in the 12 block stretch that is Broadway.

Man, so far I am SO with you, Ken.... But then you explain why you chose this particular show, a new musical called 13.

So what does 13 have that made me call Bob to see if he was looking for partner like me? Yes, it has all of the above in super-spades (wait until you hear this score), but it also has this . . . a cast of 13 teenagers. No adults.

And a band of teenagers. No adults.

Now that's something that gets attention, don't you think?
I just stared at the screen with my mouth hanging open. The absence of adults is what makes this show special? I -- I -- I'm just -- speechless. When I did Mame in high school there weren't any adults onstage, either, and nobody suggested a Broadway run was in the offing.

Ken promises more details as the show nears its September opening. Man, I hope so...

Nicholas Martin Repeats the Theatre's Biggest Lie

Thanks to Art at Mirror Up to Nature for linking to the Nicholas Martin interview. Nice choice of quotations to feature, Art. I'll let Mike Lawler discuss the staff cuts, but I will say this: is this some sort of new trend? Did the artistic directors go to some TCG workshop where a consultant described how they could improve their balance sheet by eliminating staff?

I'd like the address this particular quotation:
MARTIN.The really, really good young people - you can have them when they're just in college and just after. They're quite right, they go to New York. I don't blame them, they have to make a living. A really hot theater town - which Boston wants to be so badly and may be someday but really isn't yet, if I may say so - in a really hot theater town, a good actor can earn his living doing theater. And when [celebrated local actor] Nancy Carroll has to work a day job, that's just wrong.
In the novel The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho describes "the world's greatest lie," which is "that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate." The theatre has its own version of the world's greatest lie: that are lives are controlled by place.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote: "One of the problems in our tradition is that the land -- the Holy Land -- is somewhere else." He follows this up by talking about a section from the book Black Elk Speaks, in which Black Elk describes his vision: "He says he found himself on the central mountain of the world. And the central mountain of the world was Harney Peak in South Dakota. 'But anywhere,' he says, 'is the center of the world.'"

Nicholas combines two great theatre lies into one quotation: that the center of the world is New York City, and that it is possible for a young actor to make a living doing theatre there. Do we really need to rehash the argument against this? The Actors Equity employment figures, for instance? Do we really need to discuss whether there is a need for more young actors, even "really, really good" ones, In New York? If there is a need for actors in New York, I would venture to say that it is a need for an entirely different demographic -- say, "really, really good" middle-aged men. But young people? Dime a dozen. But the center of the theatrical world can be anywhere, as long as it is where you are actually doing theatre.

What Martin is talking about is not really "making a living" in theatre, but rather participating in more auditions. There is no arguing that there are more auditions in NYC on a weekly basis than anywhere else, more by far than a single actor can possibly take advantage of. What is the value of all the auditions that you can't attend?

And while there are many, many auditions, the ranks of the unemployed in New York are so huge and the over-abundance is so tilted toward the young end of the scale that even if you are "really, really good" the likelihood of making a living in the theatre is infinitesimal. But we keep repeating this lie, sending our young, talented people off to NYC like they sent the soldiers of World War I over the tranches to certain death from machine gun fire, because we can't think of a different way to do it, a different story to tell.

I agree with Martin that young actors should go where there is the best likelihood of working as often as possible. Actors get better mainly through trial and error, by being in front of audiences and figuring out what works and what doesn't. The same is true of directors and designers -- practice is the best teacher. But what you are going to get the most practice at in New York is not doing theatre, but auditioning. And maybe networking.

Of course, part of the problem is that someone like Martin, who is in a position to actually employ young actors, doesn't want to actually grow good actors, he just wants to pluck them ripe from the tree.
They have to be "really, really good" before he'll touch them. It is the super market approach to theatre, where somebody else does the spade work for you. George Steinbrenner is the ultimate example of this in action -- don't develop players, just buy them after somebody else does the work.

Well, for young people, I would argue if you really want to have a career in the theatre, figure out the best way to get yourself in front of an audience as often as you possibly can during your younger years. Any audience. Work work work. Then debrief debrief debrief. After every show, try to figure out what worked, and just as valuable figure out what didn't AND WHY. Be honest, be critical, be focused. Use your stage time to learn and grow, not simply to self-promote.

I would argue, contrary to Martin, that New York City is NOT where young people should go. If you are moved to see NYC as your final destination, I would argue that you would do better to do what Moliere did: spend some time learning your craft in the "provinces" BEFORE you head for NYC. Moliere BOMBED in Paris the first time, because he got an opportunity to perform for the court before he really knew what he was doing. So he took his company on the road for over ten years before he ventured back to Paris again, and to eventual triumph. During that time, he worked constantly and grew as an actor and as a playwright. That's what young people should do.

And that probably means being part of a company, and there are many people who are afraid of that. But if you have a group of people all of whom are committed to working and developing, even if it is just doing plays in church basements or living rooms or on the back of a pickup truck or on a wooden stage in the park, you will become a better artist.

I'm not talking specifically about a theatre tribe here, although you could use that model. I'm just talking about doing work any way you can, and doing so by being in control of the work that gets done rather than hitting the audition circuit and relying on other people happening to pick plays that are just right for you.

Don't let your life be controlled by fate. Take active participation in your life.

Vote Obama

On Friday, I attended a rally for Barack Obama that took place on my campus. The speaker was Michelle Obama.

Before the rally, I was a pretty strong Obama supporter; when I left, I was convinced of how very, very important an Obama presidency is to our country.

After eight years of neo-fascist Republican rule, any Democrat in the White House will be a vast improvement.

But we have an opportunity to emerge from our American ordeal to grasp something extraordinary. I will be voting for Barack Obama because I believe he will bring out America's "higher angels," to use Abraham Lincoln's powerful phrase. He will provide a model for how all Americans, not just politicians, should interact with each other: with fairness, with caring, and with a spirit of collaboration, with a commitment to community.

There are many who will argue that politics doesn't work that way; that politics is about partisanship, about power, and about money. A vote for John McCain or Hilary Clinton is a vote for this view of politics. If you vote for one of those two candidates, to my mind you give up forever all right to complain about the political system, because you had a chance to change it an failed to take it. You chose the status quo over the future. If you vote for John McCain or Hilary Clinton, you are voting for the continued drift of America to the right and toward a corporate future.

Clinton has spent a month now trying to pin the "elite" label on Obama. It is an absurd idea. Barack Obama is the child of a single mother who raised in the 1960s a child of mixed race -- what's elite about that? Does anybody remember the 1960s -- you know, the time when African-Americans had to struggle to get the right to vote? Michele Obama is the daughter of a father with multiple sclerosis who worked as a city worker throughout his life -- what's elite about that? Both received excellent educations as a result of scholarships, but nevertheless emerged carrying enormous debts. But instead of going into corporate law practice, they both worked in community organizing. "From those to whom much is given, much is expected." They gave back. And like so many of us, including me, they have just paid off their student loan debt. That's real experience, the kind of first-hand experience that moves policies from theory to reality. They have the perfect combination: humble backgrounds and incredible intellects. The experience and morality of the poor joined with the education of the elite.

I have already cast my early ballot. If you are in NC or IN, I urge you to vote to end this divisive Democratic slugfest now. Send a message that Obama is the people's choice and represents the people's voice. Vote for the future, not more of the same. Vote for a new way of being Americans. Vote for a foreign policy based on negotiation and diplomacy, not bellicose threats of obliteration. Vote for our higher angels.

Vote for Barack Obama.

I'm Scott Walters, and I endorsed this blog post.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...